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Football Commentary: Irish stars make the tough, but right, choice

Matt Gamber | Tuesday, December 8, 2009

This was the right decision for Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate. It wasn’t an easy one, and as these guys walk around campus over the next few days, they’ll probably realize it wasn’t a popular one. But it was the right one.

Notre Dame fans, myself included, will miss watching No. 7 hit No. 23 in stride on those perfectly thrown go patterns that debuted against Purdue in 2007 and that we’ve seen in just about every game over the past two seasons. We’ll miss Clausen’s laser-beam out routes, pinpoint accuracy and the fiery, competitive attitude he showed this year, during which he made a tremendous leap from a talented, cocky player into a more polished, mature leader. We’ll miss Tate’s unmatched ability to bring down jump balls, make defenders look silly in space and provide sound bytes like those he uttered after jumping into the Michigan State band and added to Monday, when he laughed off a question about a potential future in baseball by saying, “maybe in fix or six years, I’ll enter some softball league.”

The fact is both Clausen and Tate are special talents, and while Notre Dame has potential star power on its roster, replacing two of the most productive Irish players in recent memory won’t be easy. And while both Clausen and Tate certainly could have helped Notre Dame as seniors next season, those tempted to call the decision to opt for the NFL selfish need to look in the mirror to find someone guilty of that charge.

There are so many concrete reasons for both Clausen and Tate to leave. The potential for a rookie salary cap for players chosen in the 2011 NFL Draft means, in all likelihood, more money for those who decide not to wait. With the numbers each posted this season, it’s almost a statistical improbability they could improve in that regard, especially under a new coach, who, by the way, hasn’t yet been hired. And, for Clausen specifically, it’s no secret he chose Notre Dame because he thought it would further his dream of playing in the NFL — a fact that, for the record, I have no problem with, considering the tremendous effort he gave the Irish in three tumultuous seasons.

Still, I held out an ounce of hope that Tate, if not both, would return for one more year. Both left several school records and probably serious individual national hardware on the table. Neither player, despite the incredible individual performances and well-deserved accolades of each, was able to will Notre Dame to a winning regular season. They never contended for a BCS berth, much less a national title. And, as Clausen admitted when asked directly about his legacy at Notre Dame, “To be honest, I don’t know. I think that’s still to be determined.”

I don’t know either, and it’s truly a shame, because these are two players with unbelievable skills. In truth, they have both made plays that none of their Irish predecessors ever made — Tate’s Hail Mary grab against Washington State comes to mind.

Now’s not the time to dig up the regrettable but unforgettable comments a teenage Clausen made about Heisman trophies and national championships at his infamous signing day press conference, just as last Monday wasn’t a time to rehash Charlie Weis’ opening thoughts on 6-5 not being good enough. Like their former head coach, the legacies of Clausen and Tate won’t follow the storybook plot that includes team triumphs and a final ride into the sunset worthy of a John Wayne Western.

But like director of athletics Jack Swarbrick’s decision to let Weis go, this decision was the right one. It wasn’t an easy one, but it was the right one. And we wish you luck, Jimmy and Golden.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily The Observer.

Contact Matt Gamber at mgamber@nd.edu.